An Interview with Jane Chu

This summer marks one year since Jane Chu began her tenure as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. In advance of her keynote conversation at Chorus America’s Boston Conference, she spoke with president and CEO Catherine Dehoney about her career and the important role the arts play in our lives and communities.

CD: I know that in your first year as chairman you have been on the road non-stop, visiting artists and communities all over the US. Can you sum up a few of your impressions of the state of the arts in this country?

JC: My experience is that the arts are thriving. One of the things I saw—and this really aligns with what our research is finding—is that the ways people are participating in the arts are shifting and expanding. At the same time, when you’ve seen one community, you’ve really only seen one community. Each has its own characteristics that make it distinctive, so you don’t have a boilerplate template that every community follows. And nothing contributes so well as the arts when it comes to being creative.

CD: Choruses are often small to mid-size organizations. They draw on a lot of volunteer support, they typically have a low overhead—they are a very different business model than a major opera company or a ballet or a major orchestra. What kind of place do organizations like choruses have in the cultural ecosystem?

JC: I have sung in community choruses for at least three decades, so I’ve experienced firsthand the role of a chorus in a community. And I love choruses of all shapes and sizes. There’s all kinds of choruses ranging from the fully auditioned chorus to an organization that says “come join us and let’s have a really great time.” We get to celebrate the instrument that we were born with: our voice. And we get to celebrate the wide range of music that we sing.

That is only one of multiple benefits. Because the performing arts are also social, I’ve had the opportunity to meet people in the choruses that I’ve sung in that I would never have any other opportunity to meet. We have touted for a long time that the arts foster those connections, and here we have this perfect example in choruses.

Our viewpoint here at the NEA is that we really are the agency that pays attention to all of America. Grassroots are just as important as long-established organizations with a formal business model. But you really need a “both/and” when it comes to that type of ecosystem. A perspective of “either/or” does a disservice to the arts in general. It does a disservice to our ability to really come together over a shared love of music and singing.

Jane Chu in classroom

CD: Which of the NEA’s programs might be particularly relevant to choruses?

JC: I would say that it depends on what the chorus is setting out to do. Choruses have a great opportunity to play a role in a number of the different grant categories. Choruses can apply to Our Town grants where you have the arts sparking vitality in communities. Choruses can think about our Challenge America grants [which support projects that extend the reach of the arts to underserved populations], let alone our Art Works grants which support and celebrate music. Really think about what your chorus’s intention is in terms of the project you want funded and look through the menu of opportunities. And talk with our wonderful team.

CD: We often think about what the NEA can do for us, but what can the choral field and Chorus America do for you? How can we rally our members to help the NEA make the case that the arts are essential and support what you all do?

JC: I can think of one project in particular and that is because we are about to celebrate our 50th anniversary. Our year-long celebration of events and programs will start this September. Through a “Tell Us Your Story” initiative on our website (arts.gov/tell-us-your-story), we are collecting a bank of stories where arts providers and others can talk about the impact that the arts have made on their lives. You can upload photos, you can upload audio or visuals, or you can just write a story and send it in. That would be a tangible way for choruses to help. And as we go through this, we’ll make those stories accessible in a story bank so that arts providers will be able to use those same stories for their own communications. So we all win on this.

CD: You have undergraduate degrees in piano performance and music education and master’s degrees in music and piano pedagogy. But you also studied business and philanthropy. When did you make that change from pursuing a career in performance to pursuing a career in arts administration and what put you on that career path to arts administration?

JC: Well, I did not follow a linear path in terms of my career. I really just went after what I loved. And I loved music so I majored in it. I also got a music education degree. Somewhere in the process, I thought it would be interesting to train the left side of my brain, so I went back and got an MBA. I was working in some foundation areas as well so I went ahead and got my PhD in philanthropy, which I also thought was very interesting. So it has never looked like a linear path for me. But I’ve realized that everything I’ve ever been interested in gets thrown into the hopper and it all counts. If someone asked me “What would you do in terms of a career path?”, I would say something very basic: “Follow your heart.”

CD: What advice are you giving to students who are considering careers in arts management or arts admin right now?

JC: It has been enormously helpful to acquire the skills of understanding budgets, if you want to talk about really specific skills and capabilities. But in the big picture of a career and what you want to become whenever we all grow up, following your heart is the most appropriate advice for me.

CD: It’s really interesting the way you’ve pieced it all together. Which skills from your musical training and your performance days do you fall back on to inform the way you approach your work today?

JC: The musical skill that has been a helpful match with my work today is the discipline of understanding different styles of music, coupled with how you execute a composition. When you’re singing in a chorus, there are times when the altos need to sing something and the sopranos need to pull back. Or say you’re singing Verdi and then you need to turn around and sing Debussy – it’s simply different. Being able to honor the different styles has helped me understand my leadership skills because I need to make sure that I am wearing the appropriate hat when leading. Sometimes leading is making a conscious decision to step out and be the soloist and sometimes leading is knowing when to step back so that somebody else can lead. I’ve acquired those skills through my own experience with music—learning how to switch hats and appreciate the different styles and the context around me.

CD: One of the things that Chorus America has as a primary goal in our strategic plan is to foster diversity in everything we do from the composition of our board, to who we feature at conferences, to who we highlight in our magazine and the kind of work we do. We’re seeking ways to be intentionally inclusive instead of unintentionally exclusive. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about approaches that you’ve seen be successful.

JC: Now more than ever we have to think about this topic with a sense of urgency. William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, wrote a book called Diversity Explosion that talks about the quickening pace of shifting demographics in America. By 2060, there will be no racial minorities, that’s how big the shift in demographics is. This gives us a great opportunity to celebrate the arts. We want to foster diversity and really think about how we create relationships, in this case through choruses and through music, that bring meaning for all kinds of groups. We were born to think out of the box, and we can use that creativity now to find great opportunities.

My parents are from China. They came separately to the United States during the change of government when China switched to communism, and learned to make their lives completely over again in a new place. I was born in Oklahoma and grew up in Arkansas. So I have navigated through this whole bok choy/corn dog juxtaposition my whole life. The arts were an equalizer to the different cultures that I was straddling. We have an opportunity through the arts to honor all of our different perspectives without force-fitting ourselves to be a certain way. To me, that is at the heart of how we address diversity through the arts.

CD: You’ve mentioned the NEA’s “Tell Us Your Story” initiative. Are there other initiatives that you are particularly excited about right now?

JC: We are excited about all our plans for the 50th anniversary—everything from special events to programs like a series of convenings with different topics that we’ll address related to the arts. As we look back to celebrate, we’re also looking forward at the role of the NEA. I tend to think in terms of systems and landscapes. We’re asking at the NEA, are we creating a landscape that helps the arts thrive, helps arts providers connect to their communities, and helps America understand that the arts not only infuse our everyday lives but they belong to all of us?

CD: My last question: what is your favorite choral piece?

JC: Oh no, you can’t ask me that! There’s not just one but I can talk about some of the things that I’ve sung. I love the traditional pieces, like the Beethoven Symphony No. 9, the Mahler Symphony No. 2, and the requiems—Mozart, Brahms, Verdi, Faure, I love all of those. At the same time, I love any of the hymn arrangements and folk songs that Mack Wilberg has ever done. I love Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia.” I’d love to have “Salvation is Created” by Pavel Chesnokov sung at my funeral. So many a cappella choral pieces are just stunning. I get a lot of energy thinking about my favorite choral pieces.


Tell the NEA Your Story!

Visit arts.gov/tell-us-your-story to add your story to the NEA’s 50th anniversary collection.

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